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Zadie Smith wins Orange Prize at third attempt

There were many who were stunned that her audacious debut White Teeth did not win the Orange Prize for Fiction six years ago.

But at her third attempt, Zadie Smith, 30, won the £30,000 award with On Beauty at a ceremony in London last night, a triumphant victory in the most hotly contested year in the history of the prize for women novelists.

The bookies' favourite, whose acclaim has hitherto rarely translated into prize-winner's cheques, beat a shortlist including Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters.

But Zadie Smith emerged victorious only after a fierce debate lasting three-and-a-half hours among judges chaired by Martha Kearney, the broadcaster, and including Jenny Éclair, the comedian, and the writers Jacqueline Wilson and India Knight.

Ms Smith, who broke down in tears as she thanked family, her husband and publishers, said she hoped the Orange Prize organisers would not mind when she said her profound pleasure was not winning but reading all the short-listed books.

"I'm so stunned and principally because I've read everything on the shortlist and I know its quality is incredible," she said. "Every writer has aspects of style I genuinely covet."

Ms Kearney said: "Obviously there was disagreement [between the judges]. It was controversial, but the reason we ended up with Zadie was because there was a real passion about her.

"It's a book that you see a lot more in each time you look at it. It combines extraordinary characterisation with skilful and seemingly effortless plotting. It ranges from exposing the intimacies of family life to broader themes of aesthetics, ethics and vagaries of Academe in a literary tour de force."

In terms of doling out prizes, several of the contenders could fairly argue that they had been previously overlooked. There certainly appeared to have been some resistance to Smith in some quarters, with hints of sexism against the sassy cerebral beauty.

But Ms Kearney said: "She's a real talent. Sometimes with other prizes, there may have been a reaction against her. But I think she does deserve to be recognised." However, at least three books were hotly debated - and even a fourth deemed eliminated "kept cropping up" - although the broadcaster declined to name names.

Booksellers united in praise of the victor. Simon Robertson, fiction buyer for Waterstone's, said he was thrilled to see Ms Smith receiving long-deserved recognition.

Jonathan Ruppin, of Foyles, said it was "an immensely stylish and evocative novel which confirms Zadie Smith as one of our brightest literary stars.''

Smith was born in north-west London in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and an English father who divorced when she was a teenager.

While she was studying English at King's College, Cambridge - where she met her future husband, the writer Nick Laird - she published a few short stories and won the attention of a publisher. But thanks to the wise advice of another student with literary connections, she got an agent and signed a book deal for a rumoured £250,000.

When White Teeth was published in 2000, it won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize yet failed to make the Booker Prize shortlist and was pipped to the Orange by Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times. The Autograph Man, her second novel, received more mixed reviews but was again shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Also on the shortlist were: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss; Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel; The Accidental by Ali Smith; Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by the first-time novelist Carrie Tiffany, and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.

An extract...

When it comes to weather, New Englanders are delusional. In his ten years on the East Coast Howard had lost count of the times some loon from Massachusetts had heard his accent, looked at him pitiably and said something like: Cold over there, huh? Howard's feeling was: look, let's get a few things straight here. England is not warmer than New England in July or August, that's true. Probably not in June either. But it is warmer in October, November, December, January, February, March, April and May - that is, in every month when warmth matters. In England letter-boxes do not jam with snow. Rarely does one see a squirrel tremble.